Kony 2012 and the power of online activism

I’ll start by being up front – I’m skeptical about online activism. That might come as a surprise, because my last job was to do the writing for the online advocacy program at Oxfam America, a major human rights organization with millions of people in its support network. When Oxfam wanted Congress to act, and act now, I was the one to communicate it – and I consistently had to walk a fine line between telling the truth and telling a sexy story.

Today, I’m writing from Capaddocia, Turkey, partially because the world of online activism so burnt me. It was hard to send a message out to 500,000 activists and have only 10,000 of them willing to fill in their name and email and press ‘send.” But even harder was wondering whether or not these actions had impacts, and if the impacts were ultimately worthwhile given the time, effort, and strategy that went into online campaigning.

Which brings me to Kony2012. Even here in Turkey, I can’t escape this – it’s a perfect example of effective online activism, if by effective, you mean getting tons and tons of viral buzz, really high numbers of people viewing your videos, and lots and lots of press about it. And, before you accuse me of being a total downer, I’ll admit it – I loved the video. It was moving. I wanted to be out there in April filling the streets with posters and wearing my Kony2012 bracelet. I want to shape human history as much as the next person – if only it were that easy.

Because what’s the point, ultimately, if your message is messy and diluted, and your ultimate goal, while possibly attainable, is misguided at best, and frustratingly simplistic at worst?

Here’s the thing about online activism – it’s supposed to be sexy. Its supposed to be fast and furious, and its supposed to make you angry right then, and get a gut reaction, and then you are supposed to sign something (lets say, an online petition, like the one provided by Invisible Children), and then, if millions of other people sign it, maybe something changes – maybe, in the end, we “Get Kony,” and Invisible Children can claim victory! (And, if we were really lucky, he gets tried in a timely fashion and some semblance of justice is served).

But getting Kony isn’t enough. (And, don’t get me wrong – I certainly think that Joseph Kony is a murderous psychopath that should be brought to justice). But Kony2012 isn’t just sexy. It’s inaccurate and overly simplistic. And I think, most frustratingly, its dangerous and destructive to those organizations that are working hard on complicated issues, the kinds of issues that can’t be bundled into 140 character tweets – And Kony and the LRA is one such issue, with far more complicated solutions than “Getting Kony.”

To some extent, Invisible Children addresses that. They discuss in the film how they are working on education and job creation — really critical steps in rebuilding communities hard-hit by the LRA. But to me, that’s where the film should really start, and really focus. Getting Kony is the easy soundbite – rebuilding communities, rehabilitating conscripted children (now adults), and seeking structural change – that’s the real story, and the one worth sharing.

And, saying this, I’m not against or above a good message. At Oxfam, I did my best to create them. Sometimes, online activism and glitzy online communications can really work.

Take Charity:Water. They are sexy as hell. Their staff is sexy. Their website is sexy. They make gorgeous videos and throw gorgeous parties and have pretty pictures of big yellow jerry cans all over their website and you can’t help but want to donate to them – But guess what? Charity:Water then takes that money, and it builds some frigging wells. Sure, it doesn’t solve all the world’s problems, but it tackles one problem with a hell of a lot of panache, and it does it pretty well – so who can deny them?

My problem with this film (and online activism in general, at times) is that it’s just too simple. Because, lets face it, the world isn’t simple. Issues like longstanding wars in East Africa that spill into multiple countries over multiple decades can’t be fixed by wearing a pretty white bracelet or sending 100 trained navy seals into the jungle. Longstanding wars and their after effects are rarely ‘fixed,’ and if they are made better, its through a series of long-term structural changes in policy, with on-the-ground grassroots efforts led by locals; And, it sure doesn’t hurt if aid organizations are doing their part, with honesty, transparency, and a good deal humility and openness.

I’m not trying to be a naysayer. I think the hearts of the people who run Invisible Children are solidly in the right place. But that isn’t enough in international development. You have to be committed to telling the complicated stories, and addressing the complicated issues, even if it means being less sexy and losing some of your numbers.

One of my dear friends, and a brilliant activist, had this to say about Kony2012: “KONY 2012 is one of the most historical pieces of online activist history ever.” Another former colleague, (in one of his more sarcastic moments) this: “What Invisible Children should do to inspire activism is write a dense, dry 200 page report that shows how complex it all is, and distribute that to young people by snail mail.

I think, in the world of online activism, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. If you are going to spend the time and resources to make a 30-minute video, why not spend the time and resources to get it right? To explain the issues at hand? To focus not just on what is sexy (Get Kony!), but what is necessary (to educate, rehabilitate, and help support former conscripted children from the LRA).

I have respect for both of my colleagues, and for better or worse, I think they represent the range of opinions that one finds in major development and activist circles.

But when it comes to Kony2012, I just can’t help but think that had the producers at Invisible Children made a similar video—with a slightly more realistic (and yes, slightly more complicated) message – it would have still gotten through to millions of people, and ultimately, had a greater impact on those it means to serve, the Invisible Children.

3 thoughts on “Kony 2012 and the power of online activism

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this Sarah. I am hoping that this movement will reach a broad spectrum of folks…reaching people who do not identify as activists, therefore making activism and being involved more commonplace. I hope this will pull other movements and caused further into the center and away from the fringes.
    – Suze

  2. Nice post. Thanks for the insight about online activism. Their hearts probably are in the right place. But what about their egos? It’s almost trite to say it, but good intentions aren’t enough in a complicated world. – Marc

  3. Yay! I made it into your blog with my unbridled cynicism. We just had a knock down fight about this topic at the Field this Friday….you would have loved it. I also sat in a meeting where we talked about that the video was all about emotions…and I thought about what you went through to make the videos you wanted to make.
    I’m also very impressed by how NGOs just love to cannibalize and vilify each other. But who would have thought 2 million people would be talking about Kony. That in itself is an accomplishment. Who knows if “activism” really does any good at all anyway… that’s me at my even worse cynicism. But I want to hope and believe that yes, sometimes things are more complicated, but also a lot of things are not, and we as humans just love to complicate things, dear Avril.

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